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Student Reflections

The United Nations…and me?

Sharan Sekhon
July 12, 2022

My first week on dialogue has come to an end…and boy was it a week. In two weekends and a handful of weekdays, I have seen two literal mountains and many figurative mountains (of diplomacy). Meeting these pillars of international negotiations has been incredible. Not only is it an amazing opportunity but it is an almost unbelievable privilege.

As a little girl of Indian heritage, growing up I always dreamed of walking the halls of the United Nations in New York. I envisioned the pantsuits I would wear, and the briefcase I would carry, but I did not know how to make it happen. While I have not received a secret key to “making it” in my career, I have walked the halls of the United Nations in Geneva, much further from home than I ever thought I would be carrying my briefcase.

My briefcase, which I quickly realized, is not practical. I required a much larger bag; a pair of comfy shoes to change into, sunscreen, lip balm, and a laptop charger are only some of the things I have to compromise when I leave the hostel in the morning. So, tip to future pantsuit wear-ers: get a bigger bag than you think you’ll need, your un-blistered feet will thank you. Even without an extra pair of shoes, my bag is about ready to rip at the seams. Turns out, there’s a lot of note-taking involved in having the opportunity to talk to leaders of diplomacy; that requires a lot of notebooks!

My small talk skills are also being practiced in addition to my note-taking. I never would have imagined that I would joke with diplomats and human rights lawyers over their lunch while still an undergraduate student, yet at some point, along the way, I earned my seat at the table. I also learned that people do not want to talk about work all the time, even if their work involved saving the world on a daily basis. In fact, here in Geneva, we have the chance to go to the UN Port Beach Club and meet other (usually young) students or new-to-their-career people interested in asking and answering the same questions as ourselves. This weekend, I actually connected with a human rights lawyer and in a funnily stereotypical way: a watchmaker! I now have plans to meet with them during the week to go see the Old Town.

While I am not a diplomat in any sense of the term, as a researcher on this dialogue I need to apply many of the same skills as a diplomat. Sometimes we meet people with sensitive backgrounds, other times we want to make a genuine connection with someone, not just interrogate them. Thus, my interpersonal skills are certainly getting brushed up!

These are skills that as a little girl I was quite confident in. As I got older and stepped into more white and more male-dominated spaces, I became insecure in them. I began questioning myself, which isn’t always a terrible thing but a tip for women of color in professional circles: there are enough people who will question if you deserve a seat at the table, you shouldn’t question it too! There have been times on this dialogue where I have not felt heard, or I have experienced unintentional racism. That does not mean I should shrink myself. It means I learn to converse around the topic and still make sure I am heard, but most of all ensure that my contribution is not undervalued.

It has also been difficult because I have realized that I may not find my purpose in disarmament research. However, I have found that my passion for civil society has only grown. I see a role for myself and the research questions I am interested in, in organizations like the UNAOC (United Nations Alliance of Civilizations) and the Stop Killer Robots campaign. It has made me more confident that I aim to tackle these questions at the public level, not just the theoretical academia level. That’s not to say I am disinterested in disarmament; it simply means I have discovered a more specific passion.

Ultimately, coming on dialogue is about following my passions. My passion is for travel, for learning, and for experiencing the world. There was a time when this little girl from upstate New York could only dream of asking experts tough questions across a conference room. Today, I sat down at the table and was able to ask about regional efforts versus targeted state efforts. Tomorrow, maybe I’ll be able to ask something more specific, and the day after that and the day after that….

Despite the imposter syndrome while settling in and receiving my badge, I remind myself I worked to get here. Despite the guilt of knowing how a privileged few, typically not people of color from the U.S., get this opportunity, I remind myself that if I take full advantage of my opportunities, I am not letting anyone down. Despite the fear that I am not good enough at research, I remind myself that I am not letting anyone down by learning to the best of my ability.

I am living an incredibly privileged life, and I am thankful for it. I will continue in gratitude even when I am shocked by how much a lunch costs in Geneva. I am here to learn and grow and connect with the people who are passionate about the same things I am passionate about. When I see a woman who has been a career diplomat speaking about having a family, or when I see a person of color speaking with authority because they are the world’s foremost authority on a subject, I am reminded that no matter what insecurities a childhood in the U.S. has bred in me, these are my role models. These are the men and women who face challenges greater than I can imagine and they persevere. I will model myself after them and take their journey farther as I progress in life. If today I have a seat at the table, it is only because these men and women of color, many of them from the Global South, fought for their right to be at the table. I will not give up this seat because of microaggressions and imposter syndrome.

I wanted to wear a pantsuit and carry a briefcase as I tackled the world’s problems when I was about 7 years old. I am now 20 years old, and I will wear a pantsuit (and the occasional dress) through the halls of global diplomacy, for the rest of the month.